Hamish McRae: Our high-end industries need a more sympathetic civil service

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If, as most people now accept, the next government – which will inherit the gravest fiscal position of any government since 1945 – will have to be more enabling and regulating, rather than taxing 'n' spending, it will need new skills. But aside from "more responsive" and "more efficient" mantras, what are they?

The think-tanks are starting to sketch out ideas but the voice that has been largely absent up to now has been that of industry. So a speech last week by Sir John Rose, the chief executive of Rolls-Royce, deserves a wider audience.

Speaking to the Royal Society, the thrust of his message was that the UK needs to open the civil service to more people with business experience. "It seems clear that Britain and the western economies will only be able to sustain their historically high salaries and expensive public services if we concentrate on the most advanced and technologically demanding activities, where both value-added and barriers to entry are high," he said.

That must be right, but what is government's role? There are several points at which government touches industry. Reform of the civil service is an obvious place to start. Sir John feels senior civil servants should be "more accountable for wealth creation and more commercial in outlook" and that people with business experience should be recruited. Another area is the relationship between universities and business. Our business schools are making progress, but there is scope to get the technical output of our universities into commercial use. Still another is for government to clear roadblocks, particularly in the planning process. The nuclear debate has been enlivened by the pledge to fast-track power station planning applications but that is only one segment of industry.

The point here, and Sir John deserves credit for pushing it, is that at the high-tech and craft-manufacturing ends of industry the UK can remain competitive. But they need a civil service with different skills and a more effective government.